MAINE TALES. GRAB THE CORNFLAKE BOX! TRACY MILLS, NEW BRUNSWICK, CANADA. Circa 1933.
Now, no one could blame Glen for hesitating. Who in their right mind would run into a burning house after a box of Corn Flakes? This disastrous farmhouse fire happened when Glen was a young man of fifteen. By then, he’d ended his schooling and he was working for a local Potato farmer, on the Canadian side of the ‘Line.’
Many years later in the 1970s, Glen and I worked together at Bridgewater Barrel. I was the most breathless one of four ‘Coopers’ who everyday would each ‘make’ fifty eleven-peck cedar Potato barrels. Glen was one of the ‘Nailers’ who would set barrel cleats into the barrelheads, then pound in nails to secure them. He’d also drive and clinch hoop nails by mounting a barrel onto a cast-iron ‘barrel wheel,’ fashioned from an old flat-belt pulley which protruded sufficiently from the wall on a shaft. Glen would drive a nail through the hand-shaved Brown Ash barrel hoops (rhymes with ‘books’) and sawn staves Coopers had used to ‘make’ their barrels. One nail was needed for each stave for all six ash hoops, sixteen staves per barrel. Ninety-six nails per barrel, not counting the 18 needed for the six barrelhead cleats.
We all worked piece-rate. As a Nailer, Glen got paid 55 cents per barrel. Coopers got paid 80 cents. In the 1970s, a Cooper making $40 a day was big money in Northern Maine – worth $200/day in 2023 dollars. It took the equivalent of three Nailers to keep up with four Coopers. When they got caught up on odds and ends, Edgar Wheeler and Robbie Brewer, the owners, would come in and help Glen and the other Nailers keep up. Working together we’d build a thousand new barrels every week, ahead of the big seasonal rush for barrels needed by local Potato farmers every Spring.
Glen had his own distinctive way of launching into a story. Most often, out of the blue he’d get your attention calling out, “…Ya know it, Jim?” Amidst pounding adzes and hammers, as the named designee, my duty was to reply, “What’s that, Glen?” Then he’d dive into a story which most often had something to do with work, consistent with our Potato country’s hard-work-culture. Glen would most generally begin his story with one time worn expression he’d certainly gotten his money’s worth out of. “Well, I wenna work…” [Well, I went to work].
“Well, I wenna work and laid down on the Chesterfield last night after supper. Then all of a sudden this truck pulls into the drive. I got up and went out to see what the all the commotion was about. Well, it was so and so, and he handed me the $700 he’d owed me for fixing his truck. It’s been five years! I’d given up hope I’d ever see that money.”
With a wife and daughter, Glen had been a steady working man his entire life. When still a young man he worked in a local sawmill which featured a “gang saw,” which with a single pass of the log-carrying-carriage would simultaneously saw out a half-dozen pieces of lumber at a time. A foolhardy co-worker would habitually negotiate a short cut getting to the far side of the mill. He’d take a treacherous path which included stepping on the log as the carriage propelled the log towards the saw blades. Every last man in that mill quit the day that showoff made a disastrous misstep that ended his life.
Glen had dual-citizenship and lived on the Canadian side, along the Prestile Stream. His commute to the Barrel Mill on our side in Bridgewater Center was only a few miles longer than the drive from our farm into town. We both aimed to get into work by 430am. Of course, as we got going building wood fires to take the chill out of the air, we’d trade notes on that Winter morning’s low temperature or the depth of new snowfall. On clear, cold nights that bitter Winter air would settle down into hollow of the Prestile and he’d always be colder – sometimes as low as -45ºF – than our farm out to the west on the high ground next to the North Maine Woods.
A life of hard physical work had taken its toll on Glen. Back then in the 1970s he was into his seventh decade. He had problems with the circulation in his feet and had long before lost feeling below his knees. Young Billy was well-known as an incessant practical joker. He was almost through high school and would come in afternoons to help Nail. One day Billy was crawling around on his hands and knees at Glen’s feet. Beneath Glen’s rotund frame and the horizontal barrel he was nailing, the floor and Billy were not visible. But we could all hear Billy’s hammer pounding away. Glen called out, “What are ya doin’ Billy?” With an indignant tone in his voice Billy replied disingenuously, “I’m hammering down the floorboard nails here so you won’t trip!” The truth of the matter was however, Billy had surreptitiously nailed the sole of one of Glen’s workboots to the floor. A moment later, when Glen had finished nailing the barrel he was on, he made a movement towards his next barrel. With nailed barrel-in-hand Glen toppled down to the floor in slow motion. The Coopers and the other Nailers, deducing what had just happened stifled their laughter and kept on working as piece-workers are want to do. Joke expired, and with the only hurt being Glen’s pride a little bit, Billy helped Glen by removing the sole full of nails.
Another time Glen told us about his years serving in the Canadian Army during WWII. Seems one day, when he still had a year or two to go, Glen’s commanding officer came over and surprised Glen by saying he’d been discharged and he could go back home to Tracy Mills. Curious, I inquired, “Why’d that happen?” Glen, then old enough to be wise and not one to tempt fate replied, “I never asked.”
That decade before the War, the Great Depression had hit very hard in Potato country on both sides of the border. The price for Potatoes had collapsed and it was all farmers could do to hold onto their farms and avoid foreclosure. One hundred years ago banks were much more numerous, much more decentralized and too often wobbly to boot. Bank failures had been going on for decades and their fails were observed and internalized by farmers everywhere. After getting left high and dry by a multitude of factors outside of their control, generations of farmers, good at remembering, had passed down their accumulated wisdom. Farmers on both sides of the Line had learned to grow wary of banks, both on the borrowing end and on the savings end.
Glen related as to how on this one particular day during the Depression, he’d been outside with the old farmer he was working for. They both saw the smoke and ran towards the farmer’s burning house. Arriving on the scene, the farmer hollered at Glen, “Run inside and grab the Corn Flake box under my rocker!” It took a second strong admonition to get Glen moving, “Go on, Glen, go!” Glen leaped into action, ran into the house and made a beeline to the favored rocking chair. Once there he got down on his knees, and amidst the smoke and flames pawed around under the chair until he felt the Corn Flake box. Grabbing it and carrying the box like a running back would carry a football, Glen sprinted back out of the house, just in the nick of time.
Glen handed the smoky Corn Flakes box over to the grateful farmer. It was only at that moment that, though the farmer had lost his home to the tragic fire, Glen realized he had saved the day by rescuing the farmer’s life savings, kept safe and hidden inside that old Corn Flakes box.